The New School is pleased to present a Nonfiction Forum with Honor Moore on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 at 6:30 p.m. This event will take place as an online Zoom meeting. Please see the instructions in this link to join us online or by phone. Moore will read from and discuss her memoir Our Revolution: A Mother and Daughter at Midcentury (excerpted below) with Creative Writing faculty member Laura Cronk. The event will also feature a video by 2019 Parsons alumni Alyssa Shea.
“This is my oldest daughter.”
I look at him and smile. “How do you do — ”
“You’ve got a great mom!”
I would have said “a great mother.” I don’t like it when people use “mom” as a noun like that, and what does he know anyway, about this woman.
He turns and leaves the room.
When she is alone again, she turns in her bed, forgetting I am still there.
Like a punch in the gut, in the lower gut. Would this have happened if she had taken a taxi? Was it intuition that made her hesitate when Bob Amory offered a lift?
Later, when she starts to leave her husband, a rumor will circulate among people who barely know her that the man who gave her a ride home that day was her lover. He was not, but it was true she had fallen in love with a man other than her husband, had found herself admitting to herself that her marriage wasn’t working, even telling her oldest daughter, who responded by writing her an enraged letter. “What makes you think this is your marriage?” was my complaint, my particular fury directed at her use of the singular pronoun. But then Paul was elected bishop of New York, and their troubles faded in the excitement — she won’t leave him after all. They had both worked for this, his life ambition, to bring the social activism they’d conceived of together to New York, the city where they fell in love and dreamed of their future.
She will recover, quickly, and they will move the family together one last time. I have a strong body. In the will she writes as soon as she is able, she leaves Bob Amory a small painting, so that he will not feel responsible about having driven the car that almost killed her. Even in the will’s revision, which she executes two years later when she has cancer, she leaves him that painting, still wishing to assuage any guilt he might have about having driven the car that caused the injury that made her vulnerable to what finally did kill her.
The woman who comes to me in dreams is not my real mother. Or she is my real mother now and has been since she appeared in that bright green field. I was twenty-seven and she had not yet died, but she would within weeks. The green of the field was so vivid. Usually in dreams, there is no color, and she does not speak clearly to me, though her voice can come to me now in daylight — if I’m vacuuming, for instance. Life is too short, she says, one of those phrases of hers; Can’t you get someone to help? It’s not exactly her voice but the movement of her voice, and the expression, the slight irony that tells me there are other things to which I might apply myself, which is strange, since in life she was always telling me to neaten up my room.
My mother collected relics of the female past, framed embroideries of Victorian paeans to motherhood, stitched samplers and the like, which she hung in the downstairs bathroom or on the way up the stairs, right next to photographs of my father marching with Martin Luther King, or of herself posing with some of the street kids she worked with in Jersey City. She liked the irony. She was a bishop’s wife and mother of nine who didn’t look the part, who wore bright colors and net stockings. The prize of the collection was a print Currier and Ives published in 1850 called Life and Age of Woman. Because it hung on the wall of my mother’s bedroom during the last months of her life, I had a lot of time to puzzle over it, over what stage she had reached and what lay ahead for me.
Woman’s life begins in her mother’s arms, and one step up the arch with stairs, she’s a girl with a doll, two steps and she’s marriageable, holding an embroidery hoop. Next she’s a bride, hair streaming to her waist, then a young mother with an infant. At the apex stands the matron in her prime, wearing black, a white tea towel over her arm. This is the last we see of woman standing fully upright and the last of her “crowning glory,” as all four women on the descent — holding keys on a ring, bending over a cane, knitting, rocking — wear white ruffled caps that cover their hair. This life cycle had nothing to do with me; this was 1973 and I wore my hair down, nearly to my waist. Would I even enter into marriage, an institution of which, after three years of consciousness-raising, I was increasingly skeptical?
My mother rarely wore black and would have framed the tea towel, but otherwise she was certainly as upright and confident as the matron at the top of that pyramid. If she dies, I thought to myself, she will never have to get old like the crone in the rocker whose nose almost touches her chin. My mother came of age nearly a hundred years after the print was published, at the end of World War II. At twenty-one, she threw in her lot with a Marine hero bound for the Episcopal ministry, and for the next seventeen years was enthusiastically and almost always pregnant, while always dreaming of doing “something else.” She may have been born into those Currier and Ives proscriptions, but for her generation those ideas were as quaint as black bombazine, as bygone as Whistler’s mother, for God’s sake! My mother dreamed of an old age, free of all of us and onto a future all her own. Her life would not descend from a central height of maternal satisfaction, but would rise further, making another arc, and another — a double, even a triple rainbow.
“Everything was just starting.” She said that soon after she was diagnosed with the cancer that killed her.
It was the accident really that changed everything, or started the change, all those hours in bed, days then weeks, all that time to think. At first she had just suspected it and quickly dismissed the idea, then certainty took hold, and she became sure that her husband was being unfaithful to her. “Their marriage was over in 1968,” my brother Paul said recently; “I knew that then.” What we had no idea of, and what she came to believe, was that his infidelities were with men. Shocking, but it explained everything. Even when she told him in 1969 that she wanted to leave their marriage, she did not raise the subject of homosexuality. Why not? “She thought he was the most tormented man she had ever known,” one of the three friends in whom she confided told me decades later. She did not confront my father, and she never told any of us children what she knew. Later, we knew vaguely that at a certain point she began to have other relationships, but we did not know about the painful negotiations she and my father had, the agreement between them that each would see other people. She had three great loves who were all men. He had relationships with at least three women, and also, simultaneously, with men.
Everything was just starting.
Eighteen months after the accident, my parents moved together to New York City. Too soon; she became exhausted, broke down. A year later, in late 1971, she finally moved back to Washington with the five of her children still at home, and my father commuted two days a week, a process of separation beginning, a new house, a new garden. And she was writing again. The day after her fiftieth birthday, on March 12, 1973, having felt overtired for weeks, she went to the hospital for tests. There were malignant tumors in her colon and liver, the latter inoperable. She died almost exactly six months later.
What, exactly, was just starting?
While her youngest child was in nursery school, my mother wrote The People on Second Street, a memoir about leaving a privileged life to work with my father at a mission church in downtown Jersey City just after the war; it came out in 1968 and sold more than 25,000 copies. She had become increasingly active in civil rights and against the war in Vietnam; the summer of 1968 she was at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, in the crowd tear-gassed outside the Hilton Hotel. The week she was diagnosed and operated on to remove the tumor from her colon, she was admitted to a master’s program in fiction writing at Johns Hopkins. She suspended acceptance, and still in pain and dazed from anesthesia, she began to write about her life from the vantage point of her almost certain death. In early convalescence, she dictated; then she wrote by hand. When she again became unable to write by hand, she dictated. In her will, she left me those unfinished pages, fragments of memoir, and other manuscripts. I was to develop those pages as I saw fit.
I was twenty-seven and a graduate school dropout, writing poems that were satiric, angry, and feminist. I was just beginning to publish. I was honored by her bequest, but also confused. Was I to put my own work aside? How was I to do her work and my own? Over the years, from time to time, I would look through the boxes of her writing — yellow legal pads, stories or fragments written on them; multiple copies of memoir fragments in typescript; an almost finished play, but also handwritten college short stories, broken binders of course notes from college. I remembered her telling me what her friend and teacher had said about the memoir pages: “We’ll get it into print.” But there hadn’t been time to finish.
As the daughter of a living mother, I was rebellious and confused. Not knowing how to do otherwise, I rationed expressions of my love, even as we worked our way into a new, adult relationship. In the months after her death, I wrote my way out of grief in poems about her; all that held-in feeling broke into a writing voice that I now recognize as the first utterance of the writer I would become — no longer a daughter. I developed these poems into a play called Mourning Pictures, which was produced a year after her death, on Broadway. That I was to develop my mother’s writing was crowded from my mind — I carried the boxes with me from dwelling to dwelling, always carefully placing them at the back of a closet.
In the 1990s, I published The White Blackbird, a book about my mother’s mother, who was a painter. Thirty years after my mother, my father died, and I wrote The Bishop’s Daughter; I and my siblings had learned of his secret bisexual life, and in the book I integrated that revelation into the story of my relationship with him. As I wrote about my father, memory loosened images of my mother, and a sense of her as a woman began to cohere. She had died at fifty years old, and I was in my sixties, more than a decade older than she had ever been. I began to see my fifty-year-old mother as young, to get a sense of her as a woman, by which I mean a person. Who would she be if I wrote about her now? Who would I be? I looked up the will. Implicit in the bequest was my mother’s recognition that I had a self, a self she saw clearly enough to entrust with the life she had not lived, which was the life I have lived, the life of a writer. It was time to pull her writing from those cartons and read more carefully than I had as a grieving daughter in my twenties. It was time to get to know my mother.
Honor Moore’s writing include The Bishop’s Daughter, a National Critics Circle Award finalist; The White Blackbird, a New York Times Notable Book; and three collections of poetry. She teaches in the MFA writing program at the New School.
Excerpted from Our Revolution: A Mother and Daughter at Midcentury by Honor Moore. Copyright (c) 2020 by Honor Moore. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.